I Love You Because I Love You

IMG_1846At the core of anxiety – whether it’s about relationships, jobs, moving, parenthood, or life itself – lives a series of common false beliefs held together by the common thread of: I’m not enough. Underneath this painful umbrella false belief are the sinister-sister beliefs of I’m not worthy; I have to prove my worth by excelling and achieving; I will only be loved if I’m perfect; I don’t deserve a happy life. With these running commentaries on a loop in the subtext of psyche, it’s no wonder that so many people are living in a state of perpetual anxiety.

If you don’t understand the connection between silently telling yourself these lies and feeling anxious, imagine if you had a young child and all day long you were telling him, “You’re not enough. I’ll only love you if you do well in school and fit into the societally acceptable box of normal. I’ll only love you when others approve of you. I’ll only love you if you’re attractive enough and wear the right clothes. I’ll only love you if you’re quiet and clean. I’ll only love if you’re perfect.” 

We’re born lovable, good, and, dare I say, perfect. When a baby is born, the parents don’t look at their miracle and say, “We’ll only love her if she’s beautiful and gets straight As and is popular in school and gets into an Ivy League college and marries the right person and lives in a beautiful house.” Those covert or overt message don’t arrive until the child is older. No, at birth the parents typically fall in love with their baby because the baby exists. The baby doesn’t have to be anything other than who she is. She’s lovable because she’s here. Sometimes pregnant mothers fear that they won’t love their baby unless she’s beautiful, but the magic of motherhood is that every baby is the most beautiful baby on the planet in her mother’s eyes. The overpowering love affects perception and all the mother sees is beauty and angelic perfection.

And then, after the baby becomes a toddler, the ecstasy of the in-love bubble deflates (as it does in every relationship) and the relationship becomes real. The baby who could do no wrong now has a voice and a will, and he will push his parents’ buttons. They still love him but they don’t always like him. And, if they haven’t dealt with their own issues around worthiness and performance, they will pass on their inherited beliefs that their job as parents is to mold and shape behavior so that their child becomes a high achieving, successful member of society. Parents are encouraged to do this by following the advice of a “good job” culture that praises behavior instead of essence, outcome over effort, gold stars and As over passion. When Mommy’s face lights up when Billy draws a “perfect” tree but doesn’t when he struggles with basketball, he will naturally direct his energy toward the place where he receives positive feedback. In other words, he may love basketball more than drawing, but Mommy seems so impressed by his tree that he pursues an area that isn’t his passion.

Where this becomes especially damaging is around the realm of big feelings. Mommy smiles when Billy “behaves well”, which means not making too much noise, not crying, not showing anger, being agreeable and helpful, going to bed on time. She trains him to be a good boy, and, in the process, runs the risk of annihilating his essential nature, which may be loud, boisterous, or sensitive.  The message he receives is that he’s only loved when he’s a good boy (normal, fits into the mold, agreeable, not too loud or messy).

Does this sound familiar? Was your parents’ love conditional upon “good” behavior? Was your essence reflected back to you or did you only receive praise for your achievements?

As adults, the work is to recognize the running commentary and notice how often it runs in your psyche. Once you notice it, you create some space from it and have the power to change it. The work is about replacing the lie of “I’m not enough” with the truth that you are enough, you are loved, you are lovable exactly as you. It helps to begin a practice of connecting to your essence instead of your externals, of learning to see yourself as you really are in your unchangeable and eternal self.

To connect to your essence, I often suggest the following exercise:

Close your eyes and imagine the most loving person in the world sitting next to you. Perhaps this is a grandmother, living or deceased, who delights in the sight of you, whose smile reflects her unconditional love. Perhaps it’s an animal, a creature that knows you so well and loves you simply because you exist. Perhaps it’s a friend or your partner who gets you completely and has no trouble reflecting back why he or she loves you. This person can be real or imagined, but the energy that they resonate at is pure love and unconditional acceptance. 

Now imagine that this person is looking into your eyes and can see directly into your soul. She or he wants to tell you what they see: what qualities describe you; the strands of your being; who you are in your essence. There may or may not be words attached to this description, but through this communication you receive a direct transmission of who you are and a clear awareness that you are loved because you exist. That you are worthy without having to prove anything. That you are good, enough, and good enough. 

As a parent, it’s one of my deepest desires for my sons to know that they are lovable and loved exactly as they are, no matter how angry, loud, messy, or disrespectful they are. I want them to know that all of their feelings are welcome and important. I may not always like their behavior, and I let them know, but it doesn’t alter my love for them, which is unchanging and eternal. I’ll say to them, “I didn’t like how you treated your friend today, but nothing will ever change how much I love you.” Sometimes when my little one has had one of his signature, explosive meltdowns where he screams so loud that I’m sure my mother can hear him on the other side of the state, he collapses onto my lap in tears and I sing him a little song. It goes like this:

I love you when you’re happy and I love you when you’re sad. I love you when you’re grumpy and I love you when you’re mad. I love you when you’re little and I love you when you’re big. I love you when you’re silly and I love you when you’re mig.

And don’t ask me what “mig” means. He made up that part :). But hopefully the message comes through: I love you because I love you. I don’t love you because you’re beautiful (even though you are). I don’t love you because you’re creative (although I do reflect back an awareness of your creativity). I love you because I love you. And that will never change no matter what you do.

Benjamin Franklin said, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” I would add one key element that is certain, enduring, and sustainable: love. When a parents communicates that her love is certain and unbreakable, the child grows up with a cushion of certainty to rest in when the changes, transitions, and losses that punctuate a human life come to bear. Instead of growing up with the false belief that quickly turns into a running commentary of “I’m not enough”, he knows, in the deepest place of knowing, that he’s enough. And from that place of knowing, he brings the gifts of his soul’s expression into the world.

32 comments to I Love You Because I Love You

  • Christy

    Beautiful. I wish I had had parents like you, Sheryl. My prayer is to communicate this to my children should we be lucky enough to have them.

    • Thank you, Christy. I’d like to add that the work as adults is about becoming one’s own inner parent so that we can see our essence with clarity and consistency. That’s when true and lasting healing occurs, and it’s from that place of wholeness that we can consciously parent our children.

  • Erika Andersen

    Sheryl,
    I just broke off a dating relationship with a man who treated me well, was emotionally safe, was someone with whom I had chemistry, but who I didn’t find intellectually challenging. I tend to question most things, and worried that this man would eventually feel emasculated by my challenging of his thought process. In fact he told me that he felt he had been examined in a laboratory and found wanting. The article you shared here about offering unconditional love to a partner reinforces how terrible I feel about my inability to accept this man who was so accepting of me. Your focus in this article seemed to be parenting, but I know these principles are universal. What would your take away be for singles in the process of a finding a partner? At what point does one transition from assessing a good match to loving unconditionally?
    Thank you so much for your time and love shared in your blog. I’ve sent many friends to your blog and have had at least one friend take your engagement e-course.
    Sincerely,
    Erika

    • What I would say, Erika, is that there will always be something in a relationship that you have to learn to accept because, unfortunately, there’s no such thing as the perfect partner! Each person has to assess what area or areas they are willing to compromise around and learn the skills of acceptance and tolerance.

  • Lucy

    Sheryl,

    Thank you for this. I am struggling right now with feelings of grief and anxiety surrounding my father (who is still technically alive but slowly killing himself with alcohol and self-neglect). I know and feel that the anxiety is coming from that place in me which tells me I’m not good enough and that if only I work harder, achieve more, do better… that somehow if I can only attain perfection, my father will change and love me and not die an early and lonely death. I am working on self-parenting and learning to love myself the way that I know he cannot because of his own issues. I hope and pray that by the time I have children, I have done enough work on myself that I can love them without instilling in them the same “not enough” mentality that my father (and to a slightly lesser extent, mother) instilled in me. Your words are a comfort and a ray of hope.

    Thank you,
    Lucy

    • ” I know and feel that the anxiety is coming from that place in me which tells me I’m not good enough and that if only I work harder, achieve more, do better… that somehow if I can only attain perfection, my father will change and love me and not die an early and lonely death.” Yes, that’s exactly the line of thinking that begins in childhood as a way to try to manage the pain and have some sense of control, then continues into adulthood. It sounds like you’re doing great work on yourself in terms of excavating these core false beliefs and replacing them with the truth.

    • vanessa

      Lucy I can relate. After my dad did die from a lot of the same issues your dad has I put myself through the ringer the first few days feeling remorse and regret for what i didn’t do while he was alive. I cried relentlessly. It was interesting when i decided to dialogue with my little girl she was trying to have some control and not feeling good enough. “If I feel this way maybe he will come back”. It was interesting and wasnt until I put pen to paper that i discovered the reason. This led to a huge growth spurt in myself. My siblings and I chose not to do a formal intervention with him but had looked into a another type by a man named Bruce Cotter. I do regret not pushing for that a bit more with my sibs. My dad was extremely isolating and we didn’t want to make that worse. I do have comfort knowing he is in a much better place now though.

  • Jennifer Nangle

    Sheryl – as always I feel like you are speaking directly to me regarding the aspects of parenting I need to pay attention to and I am again, so appreciative. I would love to know more ways to find the balance of letting my boys know that certain behavior is not (I am struggling to find a word that doesn’t sound awful after this beautiful post:-)) wanted/acceptable/kind/nice – and for them to feel loved. I struggle with that sometimes. I’ll walk away 50% feeling I did it well and the other 50% ashamed that I let my anger (or preconceived judgements or desires to be acceptable or pleasing nature) to have taken over. I feel like I am working through becoming my own parent when I need to but this is not something I saw modeled nor continue to see – so I find it confusing to get the perspective straight. Any additional inspiring insight?:-)
    Thanks again for being you and sharing such personal feelings and always hitting the nail on the head!

    Much love – Jennifer

    • First off, Jennifer, feeling good about the way you handled things 50% of the time is pretty good : ). We’re SO hard on ourselves as parents and the truth is that no one really knows what they’re doing most of the time. It’s also helpful to know that it gets easier as time goes on and your boys mature, and you mature as a parent. I think the key is communicating that while you don’t like their behavior, you still love them. It’s about differentiating between unwanted behavior (and there will be plenty of it) and expressing that nothing they do could change how you regard them in their essence. Does that make sense? This communication will likely take place after everyone has simmered down and you’re all in a calm state again.

    • vanessa

      Jennifer I have a lot of respect for the aha!parenting website if you want more tips and ideas on specific scenarios.

  • Mary

    Thank you, Sheryl. I have a new patient appointment with a psychiatrist on March 25. I’ve had inherited depression and anxiety since I was a child with PMS thrown in the mix.. My last psych evaluation was in 1993, but for many years nows I’ve gotten my medication from my family doctor, and I don’t feel that I’m on the right medication. I can’t tell if the relationship I’m in is causing my anxiety or if my anxiety is affecting my relationship. It’s been 16 months now, and I still don’t know if he’s the right one. I know I’ll find that out sooner or later. Thank you for always being there for us.

  • RPeli

    Hi Sheryl-

    This post spoke to me really deeply today and I’m about to go and practice the exercise you’ve suggested. Just reading it, I was already able to connect with sensations.

    What this post highlighted for me was how I project my feelings of unworthiness on my partner. When I’m in a wounded place, I see him as lacking in some way. I see only what I perceive as weaknesses.
    When I’m more connected and self- accepting, I see him as a whole person too.
    And I also see how this dynamic could happen in a parent- child relationship, and occurred quite frequently throughout my own childhood. I can see that alot of my wounds exist because my mother never healed her own…

  • Nina

    As always, I love this. I really REALLY struggle with accepting my parenting. so many times I later think “why did you react THAT way, you had thought through a positive way to respond and then you didn’t” I know for me, I may always struggle with feelings of not being enough, as that is the only message I got growing up, from everyone but my maternal grandmother (loved that image). so as I work on that I try to not let me son develop that. one thing we’ve always said since he was little “I love you no matter what” and he repeats that to me sometimes now, at age 5. I hope he really truly feels that inside. because I do. I love him no matter what. but more importantly I hope he feels that about himself, loves himself no matter what.

    often at night I will tell him all the things about him that I see that are positive. but the other day I did it while I was driving because often I pick him up at the end of the day and it seems I get a litany of what was bad about the day and what he is angry at me for, for not getting him. I wanted a different feeling in the car so as I said the wonderful things about him, he started grinning so big and said “you make my heart beat fast and it makes me happy to hear those things” seems like sometimes I’m doing something right.

    • I believe that on some level we ALL struggle with our parenting. There’s a pervasive “not good enough mother” culture that underscores the “not enough” belief that most people carry. It’s a brutal combination and very hard to combat. Saying positive things to your son at the end of the day – or any time of day – is beautiful, and it’s clear that he’s taking it in. I also try to make an effort to reflect the positive and wonder why it seems to easy to spill out the negative.

      When it comes right down to it I find myself thinking quite often, “It’s too much for one or two people; it really does take a village.” If we were cushioned and supported by loving relatives, there wouldn’t be so much pressure on us to do it all. But that’s a topic for another post…

  • Selena

    hey Sheryl,

    I just wanted to join in the discussion and in response to the last commentator would like to say that research into certain primitive societies there was so discerning of children when it came to rearing them. It was the entire society, village so to speak, that was involved in parenting them. All chidren were their, that way they collectively shared the responsibility of making sure they grew up well rounded individuals who knew to trust all adults to be a safe place to go to. It was one gigantic family. And I hope, someday, that humankind can live this way in its entirety. Of course, it takes a lot of work…

    • I, too, hope that we evolve into a world that takes care of our children by providing community and support to our adults. It’s the only sane way to live.

  • Stephanie

    Hi Sheryl,

    I always look forward to your post! Great one! 🙂

  • Heidi

    This is beautiful. I struggle with showing my love to my children when they misbehave. Misbehave defined by society, of course. Life would be so easy if they just came home and did their homework. Instead it’s a struggle and an argument daily. Then they get mad at me, then we argue, then I feel like they don’t love me because I asked them to do their homework. I’m only asking because I love them and I know they will benefit. Why does it turn into me being the bad guy? How do I make it an unconditional love, stop telling them to do their homework so we’ll avoid fighting? This is just one example, but all our interactions seem to go this way lately.
    LIfe is a challenge.

  • Anne

    Sheryl, thanks for this great post that definitely resonates with me. I grew up being the “good kid” because that’s what was expected.

    I want to note however that there is another cultural expectation in this post, that I have personally found not to be true. Not every mother feels instant and absolute love for her newborn babies. I found that it takes time to get to know a baby, too, and that though I unconditionally love my children, I didn’t feel “in love” in those early days.

    • I didn’t feel in love in the early days, either, Anne. However, I purposely chose the word “typically” in that sentence because I have found that most mothers do fall in love quite quickly. I strongly emphasize in my Birthing a New Mother ecourse that if you don’t fall in love right away there’s nothing wrong with you.

  • Tanya

    Sheryl, I just want to say that “I love you when you’re mig” had me in hysterics. What a classic! Love this post, thank you!

  • Catherine

    Wow the floodgates opened when I read this because my wounded self tries really hard to convince me I’m not worthy of receiving love from my husband or others in my life. For so long I attributed this sense of worthlessness to things outside of myself but really it’s all inside. I tend to think to myself “if only I wasn’t a or b then I’d be happy.” Or I’d project onto others “if only they weren’t so a or b, I wouldn’t feel so c right now”. Thanks to your work, I’m slowly starting to see how I have to take responsibility for myself if I want to accept all parts of myself-the good and the bad-if I want to be happy with myself.

  • Sophie

    Sheryl, I don’t know how to marry this up with my teaching. I want to convey to the children in my class that they are absolutely ok exactly as they are. But I do need them to conform (not sure if that’s the right word) to the rules that we have within the classroom. They helped write the rules we have. I worry that I’m not allowing them enough personal expression and that this is stifling them. I struggle with a lot of work-related anxiety around this area. Any advice or comment is appreciated!!

    • Sophie: From what I know about you, I have no doubt that you’re a fabulous teacher and that you’re offering your kids a tremendous gift just from being in their lives. As far as how to create more self-expression or freedom in the classroom, I have some ideas but, since I’ve never taught in a classroom setting, I don’t think it would be fair or realistic of me to make suggestions.

      However, I know that there are models of education that support greater freedom for kids, and perhaps it would be interesting for you to look into them. One is the Sudbury or Democratic model. One of my favorite books, “In Defense of Childhood”, is written by the director of the Albany Free School, which another fabulous model.

      I did a quick search and found these schools in New Zealand:

      Mountain Valley School, Motueka
      Tamariki School, Christchurch, Linwood
      Timatanga Community School, Auckland

      I’d love to hear what you learn! I imagine some of your work anxiety would be reduced if you were in a school environment that was more aligned with your core values.

  • Celeste

    Thank you the this timely article! I have been struggling with parenting my 16 year old daughter. ….challenging to say the least. Focusing on the love helps.

  • Victoria

    I’m curious, Sheryl. I’m not a parent, but I hope to be one day. Let’s say you had a very “difficult” child; a child who you found so challenging to get past toddler-dom. When that child was older, happy, and relatively well-adjusted… would you tell them how tough they were?

    As a small child, I felt loved, but I also felt burdensome, problematic, guilty and fearful. I KNEW that I was loved. Once when I threatened to run away (as so many small kids do) my mother wailed and clung to me and asked me what she’d done wrong! It was bewildering, but she sure did love me! When I was about 12 or 13 and happy, well-behaved etc… my parents would often talk about how “tough” I was. My mother even confessed to me in more recent years that the reason she didn’t have another child was because I was so difficult.

    Perhaps not Ironic then, that in my adult romantic relationships, I struggle with others verbalizing their love for me. For a long time, I always felt that I could not or would not ever be able to love others as deeply as they love(d) me.

    Do you think there’s such a thing as being too open with what you share with your children? My Mom and Dad – despite their divorce – have been great parents to me and we have a really open supportive relationship, but I sometimes wonder if maybe there’s certain things you shouldn’t tell your teenagers, no matter how mature they seem?

    I’m mostly over my anxiety (THANK YOU!) but this is something that gets me curious. Would love your thoughts!

    • Victoria: Yes, I absolutely believe that parents can share too much information, especially since the way your parents shared it wasn’t very loving. Using words like “tough” probably means that they didn’t have the skills to handle your big feelings and were trying to make you be “well-behaved.” The message you received was that there was something wrong with you but that wasn’t the case at all.

  • Noelle Leithem

    This is such a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing this truth. I have dealt a lot with feeling like I am not good enough because my parents love was based on how I preformed and how I behaved. I am now learning what true unconditional love is from my wonderful husband-to-be in ten days! 🙂
    I can’t wait to show this kind of love to our kids some day. LOVE is what I want my life to be based on!